Thursday, January 16, 2014

Library Shelf: Trauma and Recovery

Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence--From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror
by Dr. Judith L. Herman

This comprehensive work examines the causes, symptoms, and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and the related condition Complex PTSD. I started reading it over Christmas break and ended up with twelve pages of handwritten notes! Here I will highlight some excerpts that meant so much to me that I find myself bringing them with me to other texts.

This paragraph encapsulates the mental gymnastics that harm an abused child's developing brain:
She must find a way to develop a sense of basic trust and safety with caretakers who are untrustworthy or unsafe.... She will go to any lengths to construct an explanation for her fate that absolves her parents of all blame and responsibility. (p. 101)

Turns out all those psychological contortions serve a useful purpose, even if they have to be repaired later:
Double think and a double self are ingenious childhood adaptations to a familial climate of coercive control, but they are worse than useless in a climate of freedom and adult responsibility. (p. 114)

I gained a lot of hope from Herman's analysis and experience, but the most cheerful part was reading this:
Survivors of childhood abuse are far more likely to be victimized or to harm themselves than to victimize other people. 
...Contrary to the popular notion of a "generational cycle of abuse", however, the great majority of survivors neither abuse nor neglect their children.  (pp. 113-114, emphasis added)
From the time I got married, I was so afraid of repeating some kind of "cycle"--a concept the IBLP cult strongly promoted and mainstream culture continues to accept. My dear husband used to reassure me that I would not become [someone from my abusive past], but it helped to read this again. And again.

Hearing this from an expert did me so much good:
Since mourning is so difficult, resistance to mourning is probably the most common cause of stagnation in the second stage of recovery. Resistance to mourning can take on numerous disguises. Most frequently it appears as a fantasy of magical resolution through revenge, forgiveness, or compensation.

…Some survivors attempt to bypass their outrage altogether through a fantasy of forgiveness…. The survivor imagines that she can transcend her rage and erase the impact of the trauma through a willed, defiant act of love. But it is not possible to exorcise the trauma, through either hatred or love. Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings…. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution.
...Fortunately, the survivor does not need to wait for [a perpetrator’s contrition]. Her healing depends on the discovery of restorative love in her own life; it does not require that this love be extended to the perpetrator. Once the survivor has mourned the traumatic event, she may be surprised to discover how uninteresting the perpetrator has become to her…
Mourning is the only way to give due honor to loss; there is no adequate compensation.  (pp. 189-190, emphasis added)
Grieving was not a process I learned about as a kid. We never really grieved losses, because we were always looking forward to getting everything back better at an unspecified time in the future.  Our goal was to be able to say like Job in the Bible: "The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away... blessed be His Name." We "yielded our rights" to things both tangible and intangible so that we wouldn't be upset if we weren't allowed to keep them.

In the film "The Bells of St. Mary's", the doctor asks Bing Crosby's character, "Don't you people more or less go where you're told, without question?"

Bing, as the priest Father O'Malley, replies, "Yes, we're supposed to have the stamina to take it."

As a young adult, that was the kind of stamina I expected of myself. Job lost everything, but refused to despair and got twice as much of everything at the end of the story. He even got new children! All loss was merely temporary deprivation, and would be made right eventually in a perfect afterlife.

When I first learned about grief in the context of managing life transitions, it was the very beginning of my healing and recovery. (Thank you, George Hires, for insisting I should attend that workshop in the Philippines. I had no idea how much it would mean!) The notion of acknowledging the emotional pain of loss was new and life-changing. I find myself returning to that concept again and again as life moves forward.

Finally, this paragraph from a chapter on recovery well describes the challenge of adjusting to life under "normal" parameters, even while learning what those parameters are:
Survivors whose personality has been shaped in the traumatic environment often feel at this stage of recovery as though they are refugees entering a new country…. Michael Stone, drawing on his work with incest survivors, describes the immensity of this adaptive task: “Re-education is often indicated, pertaining to what is typical, average, wholesome, and ‘normal’ in the intimate life of ordinary people.”  (p. 196)

I so appreciate Judith Herman's work putting all this information together in one place. Even though her book is twenty years old now, the first chapters are great for putting the study of "shell-shock", "hysteria", and domestic abuse into a sociological human rights perspective. She makes some some sadly fascinating observations about Freud's early work with victims of sexual abuse, showing how he later chose "the path of least resistance" in adopting a philosophy that shamed victims and denied the truth of their own accounts.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who has survived trauma or abuse of any kind, or who loves someone who has! Depending on what stage of recovery you are at, it may not be a quick or easy read, but I found the effort quite rewarding.


  1. Once again I'm crying after reading one of your beautiful posts. :-) Healing, empowering tears of understanding and "ohhhh, now I get it." Thank you, dear friend. XO

  2. I don't know how to mourn. I suppose i never learned. There were many times i wasn't even allowed to be sad about something. my parents squelched many emotions. I don't have a gut instinct, i don't have sadness.... i don't have so much and yet i have never really been able to grieve it. only be angry about it. How do you mourn the past, does the book go into HOW to mourn? if so, i might need to get it. I really don't know how to feel those feelings of mourning, only how to suppress them.

    1. This book does not really go into that. But Pete Walker's book on C-PTSD does get into that. He also points out that sometimes there are other things we have to process in order to even get to the mourning. It's a complicated mess. His book is really practical, though.